When Zimbabwean journalist and 2010 Nieman Fellow Hopewell Chin’ono started speaking out against corruption in the government, using his Facebook and Twitter accounts as primary channels, he knew the precedent of journalists before him who had been arrested and harassed for taking a stand. He was particularly aware, as he says in this interview with Nieman Reports, about Mark Chavunduka, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, and Ray Choto, who were arrested and tortured by the Zimbabwean military after they published an article about an alleged uprising by soldiers in 1999.
But he continued to reveal stories of corruption, including the looting of funds meant for Covid-19 relief. This story led to the firing and arrest of the Zimbabwean Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo, but implicated the president’s son, which is what Chin’ono suspects led to his own arrest.
Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume were imprisoned for 45 days, pre-trial, and released on bail on September 2nd. “That’s the best we can do,” Chin’ono says. “Just do the normal things, do our work, not feel intimidated.”
And when a journalist is down, Chin’ono says, we must stand up for journalism and do what we can to support them. We also spoke about the intimidation and murder of journalists around the world, the attacks on the press by President Trump in the U.S. and the use of social media as a viable news channel in the face of its deployment for the massive dissemination of falsehoods in recent years.
2016 Nieman Fellow Fungai Tichawangana recently interviewed Chin’ono. Edited excerpts from their conversation:
Fungai Tichawangana: How are you doing? I know when you came out of prison, you were not feeling well.
Hopewell Chin’ono: I feel much better now. I have, I think, fully recovered. When I came out of prison, I had a terrible fever. I came out of prison on a Wednesday or Thursday, I can’t remember the exact day. The preceding Sunday, I had had a serious fever. I had to ask for my doctor to come. When he came, he looked at me and he said the symptoms were similar to Covid symptoms. He then had two Covid-19 tests done. Fortunately, they came back negative, but it took a bit of time for me to recover.
You’ve spoken about how at Chikurubi prison the inmates are not given any information about Covid. How aware are they about the scale of the pandemic?
They just know that there is Covid, but they are not given sufficient information for them to understand how to manage it. For instance, whilst I was in there, there was no prisoner who had a mask. They were not given masks. There are over 2,600 prisoners in that place, and they didn’t have masks. Sometimes, it looked awkward for me, Jacob Ngarivhume and Job Skala [another imprisoned opposition leader] that we were wearing masks and no one else was, except the prison officers. When prisoners tested positive whilst I was there, they were isolated, but they were not given anything. They were only given warm water.
You’ve said there was money provided for masks for prisoners [and healthcare workers] as part of the Covid response, but it disappeared.
Yes. The real reason why I was arrested is because since May, I had been exposing the looting of Covid-19 funds. I was doing this on Twitter and Facebook. The regime was upset that I had talked about Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son [Mnangagwa is the Zimbabwean president]. His wife was also implicated. They started by saying that I am tarnishing the name of the president, I’m tarnishing the name of the First Family.
Then you looked at how much was set aside for Covid, PPEs [personal protective equipment], masks, and things like that. It was $60 million. It was being looted from the government by high-ranking government officials, including the then-minister of health. This money was meant to buy masks for prisoners, for people in hospitals. It was meant to make sure that nurses had personal protective equipment for Covid, but they never got it.
That is why, up to today, nurses are still on strike, because they were saying and are still saying, ‘We cannot go to work unless you give us protection. We need to be protected.’ The same applies to prisons as well. That money was earmarked for buying personal protective equipment across the government services. They haven’t had soap for over a year in prison. That’s how terrible it is.
Do you think it’s just corruption, or there is a bigger problem at play here? We have corruption in other countries. What is so unique about the Zimbabwean brand of corruption that is leading to this?
Every country has a level of corruption, but it is the type of corruption that defines how bad the situation becomes. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the corruption is so bad that they buy Land Cruisers for Health Ministry officials, and yet, if you go to the biggest hospital in Zimbabwe, which is Harare Hospital, now called Sally Mugabe Hospital, you will find out that the only maternity theaters that are there at that hospital, which is the biggest in Zimbabwe, were built by the colonial government in 1977.
It’s only two that were built in 1977. There’s never been one built after that. Both of them are not working. You find that 2,500 Zimbabwean women die every year whilst giving birth. That’s the equivalent of over 15 jumbo jets crashing every year and killing pregnant Zimbabwean women, 2,500 of them. That’s how bad our corruption has become.
If you go to prisons, it’s the same thing. The diet there is porridge in the morning, and then for lunch, they get badly cooked sadza [cornmeal] with boiled beans, and nothing else. In the evening, they get badly cooked sadza with boiled cabbages. This is the diet all year round.
A lot of people are becoming very terrified, scared, and worried for their personal security. They end up just remaining quiet. That’s the reality of the country. The corruption, as you asked, started at a local level in 1980 when we got our independence, and it became incremental. It reached a point where we have a diamond field, the biggest find [of diamonds] this century, yet if you go to that area, where that diamond field is located, in Chiadzwa in Mutare, the people do not even have clinics that are working.
These are billions of dollars that were looted. That’s the reality. Nobody takes charge. Nobody owns up to say, ‘This is what has happened. It’s wrong. We have to stop it,’ because everyone is doing it.
Do you think there’s any real attempt to fight corruption?
It is a smokescreen. It’s a comical attempt to fight corruption. Why I call it a comical attempt is that I exposed corruption, but Mnangagwa ordered my arrest, because I had tied it to his family. It shows that there is no interest by this regime in dealing with corruption.
Today, the former Minister of Health is walking in the streets. The state did not oppose bail when he was arrested. Yet the state spent 45 days opposing my bail, the person who had exposed the corruption. It shows you that the state has no appetite for dealing with corruption. We have resigned ourselves to corruption. It has become the DNA of our government.
It has become so bad that we don’t have running water in the city. We do not have medication in clinics and in public hospitals. Our public hospitals have been shut down for the past three months. Over 95 percent of our citizens use those public hospitals. The fact that they are shut down, it means people are simply dying silently in their homes.
No, they just talk about corruption, but they don’t act. Even when we give them the evidence, they don’t act.
When you were arrested, we saw thousands of Zimbabweans taking to social media to voice their concern about your arrest, about the lack of press freedom in Zimbabwe. We had American celebrities tweeting about it, and even the former president of Botswana. How effective do you think this sort of social media activism is?
Social media activism is important, because it gets people to understand what’s going on whilst they are in the comfort of their homes. I personally used social media to expose the looting of public funds using Covid-19 tenders. It was effective. It is what has brought us here.
The fact that there was an international solidarity movement to talk about our arrests is what got us out of prison. If Mnangagwa had his way, he would have kept us there, but because of international pressure, they had to give in.
Social media activism is important, but to what extent is it important? People in our country know that they have the right to go and protest physically on the streets, and the regime does not want people to do that. It’s comfortable with people doing it on social media, because it knows that there is nothing else that will happen other than talking.
The problem is that the government is coming up with the Cyber Security Bill that is going to stifle social media engagement. It’s going to criminalize those of us who have used social media effectively to talk about public affairs, issues like corruption, the looting of public funds, the plundering of international resources. Social media has its benefits, but it also has its own limitations.
Looking at social media as a platform for journalism, how do you think journalists can fight the spread of false information and yet champion this powerful medium as a way of spreading the truth?
I think social media is just like any other platform before social media came into being. It’s all about journalists doing their work using social media. It has made everyone, in a way, a journalist. Because of that, the citizens, they know the Twitter handles and the Facebook accounts that are credible. They know the ones that are not credible. They know the ones that are journalistic. In my case, I have to put legal rigor in everything that I write. I’m quite aware that I can be sued if I put out information that is not correct. The state, indeed, is waiting for me to make that mistake.
I would say journalistic self-introspection, making sure that whatever you’re putting out is correct and has been checked. We should apply the same standard that we apply for newspapers, that we apply for radio stations or TV stations. I think social media will remain relevant.
The fact that there are other elements, including governments, that use it for propaganda purposes does not remove the importance of social media in journalism or journalism in the era of social media. I think that we just have to keep on doing our work the same way we did it when we were in the newspaper, radio, and television era. The quality of the product does not need to change.
When I started doing the corruption exposures, I was using Facebook and Twitter. Zimbabweans would take those articles from Facebook and those tweets, and they would share them on their family groups with their relatives and grandparents who are living in rural areas. Social media enabled those who don’t even know about Twitter or Facebook to get access to the information that I was putting on these two platforms. There was a multiplier effect when it was shared on other platforms, like WhatsApp and Telegram. It’s a very important tool. That is why dictators don’t like it, because it has made the availability of news extremely, extremely easy
In Zimbabwe, we have the biggest newspaper, which is state-owned, called the Herald. It now sells less than 5,000 papers a day. I have on Twitter over 165,000 followers. They have access to what I put out daily. This is what makes the Zimbabwean regime and many other dictatorships fear the advent of social media. It has immobilized the control of news, the use of propaganda by the state, because citizens can go elsewhere and check.
Do you think there’s a renewed attack on journalism around the world?
I think it has always been there. It’s only that now we have many platforms to read about it, to watch it on television, to listen on podcasts. For instance, the abuse by the state in Zimbabwe has always been there.
If you remember, there’s a former Nieman Fellow who was called Mark Chavunduka. He was tortured in 1999 in Zimbabwe with his colleague Ray Choto [for publishing a story in their newspaper alleging that there had been an attempted coup from within the military]. It was harder for the rest of the world to know that this was happening, because you could only read about it in newspapers or hear about it on TV or radio.
What Trump is doing today has been done before by many dictators. He is simply using a platform where he has close to 100 million people following him.[Social media] has made dictators and rulers who do not want to comply with their own national constitutions feel very uncomfortable. That’s why they always attack journalists. I would not have been able to expose the Covid-19 tender scam in 1998, because I had to be working for a newspaper to do so. That newspaper would not have had a huge reach. Today, I was able to use my skill as a journalist to go onto Twitter and Facebook and expose this scandal. Social media has made it absolutely easier now to do so.
It has made it easier also for us to understand about the media abuses in Central Europe, the kind of nonsense and intimidation that we see from Donald Trump whenever something is said that he doesn’t like.
What’s your take on how the US press has handled the Trump presidency, whether too much coverage is devoted to his rallies and press conferences, where he spreads false information?
I don’t agree with the principle that someone you don’t like is denied access to newspapers, to radio, to television. It’s a form of its own dictatorship. I think Trump should be given access to traditional media platforms. That’s the only way that Americans would be able to make the right decisions about the public affairs of their country as they relate to Donald Trump and his administration. Trump would like the media not to give him access, because he would then turn around and say that, ‘Look, these people have got an agenda.’
I don’t know much to make a judgment on how the American press has handled it. Standing from afar, from Zimbabwe, I think that I have been able to get access to information about Trump from the American traditional media and social media. I do not have the intimate details of how Trump might have been denied access or how Trump might have been saying things that should not have been said about the media. Of course, he talks about The New York Times. He talks about CNN, because he doesn’t like them.
Recently, I just realized, whilst reading one of the articles that was sent to me by an American friend, that Trump is even fighting with Fox, which is the traditional home of Trumpism. It just goes to show that he doesn’t have permanent friends in the media landscape. His permanent friend is somebody who continuously peddles his propaganda. Not even Fox is prepared to do that, which is healthy in a democracy. Let him say what he wants to say. Let what he has said be critiqued by both the media and the citizens. In that way, as global citizens, we can only emerge out of it better.
You have emerged from prison more resolute than ever. What do you think your arrest has done to the psyches of other journalists in Zimbabwe?
I think my arrest did the opposite of what Mnangagwa and his regime wanted. They wanted us to be used as an example of what would happen to journalists if they report on corruption, if they talk about the president or his family, and linked them to corrupt activities. What it has done is to galvanize the media, journalists, to become more resilient. They want to go out there and do the stories, because they realize that the story of corruption is the story in Zimbabwe. It’s the key story in Zimbabwe, because Zimbabwe is the way it is today because of corruption and the failure to respect the rule of law, the failure to comply with the constitution.
On a political level, I think it has brought back the media torch to the dark corners of Zimbabwe. I think the media needed a story for them to start talking about Zimbabwe again. Our arrest did exactly that. It gave the global media an opportunity to talk about the failures of the Zimbabwe regime. The failures of the Mnangagwa regime in implementing the reforms that they had promised when they were removing Robert Mugabe. They were supported by countries like Britain on the basis that they were reformists and they failed to do that.
The story had died. When we got arrested, it was awakened again. Up to today, people are still talking about the issues relating to Zimbabwe. Not necessarily just about myself and my colleagues, but we are just an entry point for the media now to talk about the issues relating to Zimbabwe. That is a very good positive that came out of our arrest, so our arrest wasn’t in vain.
What sort of citizen action do you think can fix the challenges in Zimbabwe right now?
Zimbabwean citizens must stand up for their rights. They must stand up for their constitution. Their constitution allows them to protest against the government by marching in the streets, yet the government is trying to criminalize that by saying it incites violence. Zimbabweans must stand up for the constitution. They must make sure that they are not stopped from doing what the constitution allows them to do. That cannot be asserted by foreigners, by South Africans, or by Westerners. It can only be asserted by Zimbabweans.
Until Zimbabweans understand the importance of them asserting their rights and using constitutional methods like protesting, which are enshrined in the constitution, then they are doing themselves a big disservice.
Fear will never go away until the citizens become resolute against unconstitutional behavior by the regime. Until the day the citizens say, ‘We want our constitutions respected,’ the regime will continue doing so. To continue suppressing them, continue taking away freedoms from them. It will never stop from looting public funds or plundering national resources, because the citizen is timid and is afraid to assert their rights using constitutional means.
How can the Nieman community and the wider journalism community support your efforts?
I would like to thank the Nieman community and the media community around the world for standing up for me. The solidarity, the support, it was amazing. The statements that were issued, they went far and beyond. That’s the kind of support that they can give. Beyond that, there is very little that can be done, other than making sure that whenever one of us, and by one of us, I mean a journalist, whenever one journalist is injured, it’s an injury to all of us.
We must stand up for journalism. The way the Nieman community stood up for me, it’s an example of what they should continue doing whenever a journalist is found in a situation where I found myself, where I was being victimized for doing nothing but just practicing journalism.
What are your plans going forward after your trial?
When I came out of prison on bail, nothing changed, really. I just said, ‘I’m going to continue doing my work.’ It’s a constitutional right, that there’s a constitutional right for me to do my work. I just said I was just going to continue doing my work, and that’s what I’m doing; commentary, reporting on issues, trying to live a normal life inside a very abnormal country, run by a very abnormal regime. That’s the best we can do. Just do the normal things, do our work, not feel intimidated. That’s exactly what I’m doing.